Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Empire 'Halfheartedly' Strikes Back  

Advisory: This article is a follow-up to the September 2015 article, ‘The Deft Political Maneuverings Of Jesus And Jewish Officials Under A Precarious Roman Shadow’. Familiarization with the earlier article is critical for comprehension of the follow-up. 

                                          Gaius Octavius, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, 1st Roman 
                                                        Emperor, 27 BC - 14 AD.   

It is difficult to reconcile the standard Christian narrative of an intense and persistent irrational pagan Roman hostility towards the early Church when churches were being erected during this period. At least seventy-eight years before the passage of the Edict of Milan (313 AD), which legalized the existence of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, Emperor Severus Alexander (reign: 11 March 222 – 18/19 March 235) granted land to Christians in Rome to build a church, Our Lady in Trastevere. In 303 AD, ten years before the passage of the Edict of Milan, construction was completed of a Christian church in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (Nicomedia), situated on a hill overlooking the imperial palace below. In fact, by the start of Emperor Valerian’s reign (253 AD) Christians were …senators, and men of importance, and Roman knights…

Professor Candida Moss (Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame) informs us of an instance of Christian insurrection, yet the Roman governor on the scene is totally indifferent to the Christian melee…

“In a famous episode in Asia Minor around 185, a mob of Christians marched to the home of C. Arrius Antoninus, the governor of Asia, and demanded to be executed. The governor, no doubt irritated by the interruption, sent the Christians away, telling them that if they wanted to die, they had cliffs to leap off and ropes with which to hang themselves. If he had been following the guidelines in the Pliny-Trajan correspondence, he could have had the Christians executed, and yet this particular administrator could not be bothered to arrange trials. Not every Roman administrator was interested in Christians; many just wanted to see them go away. 

What the story describes is thousands of Christians being eager to die but actually being sent home disappointed. “1 

But wasn't punishment meted out by Roman governors when faced with the threat that ad hoc crowds posed? Professor Moss informs us…

"If we give any credence to the apocryphal acts and believe that the apostles attracted large crowds, then we have to concede that the apostles might have been viewed as revolutionaries. If they were arrested, then the charges levied against them may have been insurgency or inciting unrest among the people. As the death of Jesus shows, Romans had no problems executing people who caused trouble or could potentially start a rebellion. They were taking elementary precautions."2

Yet the Roman governor of Asia was merely annoyed by what Rome termed insurrection, sending the Christian mob on its way unmolested. What is not explained is why the Christian mob was allowed to form and proceed to the governor’s residence. It would seem, contrary to the notion of an intense and persistent irrational pagan Roman hostility towards Christianity, Rome was bending over backwards to comply with a ‘turn a blind eye’ policy towards Christians, the policy failing several times due to varying circumstances affecting the empire and its survival. And this brings us to the central point regarding pagan Rome and Christianity: It wasn’t Christianity that Rome found disagreeable, it was Christians’ behavior towards Rome that Rome found illegal.

     Curia Julia during a Senate meeting. The senate building was constructed by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, to replace the Curia Cornelia.

Christianity is the religion that eventually formed out of the Jewish sect called The Way, a religious movement founded by Jesus of Nazareth. Recognized by Rome as a deity, Rome remained passive towards Jesus, even when He attracted crowds and performed miracles, actions that are termed insurrection by Rome. We can add sedition to the crimes Jesus was guilty of in the eyes of Rome, since Jesus (1) referred to Himself as a king; only Rome can appoint kings; and (2) told His followers they could decide what belonged to Caesar, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." Caesar decided what belonged to him, not Roman subjects! Rome’s reluctance to wipe out Christianity is due to the respect Rome had for the Jewish deity Jesus, otherwise Rome would have cut short Jesus’ ministry when the self-styled Messiah first crossed into Roman Judea from Perea, commencing His several-year ministry in the region.

What was it then that troubled Rome about Christians? Firstly, before the end of the second century Christians advocated avoidance of military duty in the Roman military, which was viewed as sedition by Rome. Secondly, Christians refused to take part in the Roman Imperial Cult, which involved praying for the well being of the empire and emperor. Rome viewed such abstention as treason. Thirdly, Christians expressed contempt for Roman authority, characterized by rude [unchristian] behavior towards Roman judges when brought before tribunals. If Christians today could time travel back to this time period and witness their brothers’ and sisters’ interactions with pagan Romans, they would be shocked by the manifestly un-Christ like tantrums Christians vented at their pagan Roman neighbors. Needless to say, Christians today would feel pity for the Roman authorities, and view early Christians as mentally unstable.

Still for all the disrespect Rome suffered at the hands of Christians, retaliatory action from Rome took the form of four imperial-directed prosecutions  (not persecutions) that lasted, in the aggregate, no longer than thirteen years:

1. Nero’s prosecution of Christians was confined to Rome and lasted one year, 64 AD;

2. Decian's prosecution was not directed at Christians and lasted one year, 250 AD;

3. Valerian's prosecution of Christians lasted two years, 257 – 258 AD; and

4. Diocletian's prosecution ('Great Persecution') of Christians entailed six years, 303 – 305 AD, and 311 - 313.

                                Tiberius Claudius Nero, 2nd Roman Emperor, 14 AD to 37 AD. The reports received of
                                           Jesus' ministry in Roman Judea and environs persuaded Tiberius to give free reign to 
                                           Jesus' activities.

Between 30 AD (approximately when Jesus commences His ministry) and 313 AD (Edict of Milan) 283 years have elapsed, yet the followers of Jesus suffered no more than thirteen years of imperial directed prosecutions at the hands of Roman magistrates, representing a mere 4.59% of that 283 year time span. It should be added that these prosecutions weren’t universally followed by Roman magistrates, where even in whole regions of the empire most Christians went about their lives untouched.  The "Great Persecution" left areas like Britain, Gaul, and Spain relatively untouched.

The question that needs addressing is therefore clear: Why did Rome allow the spread of Christianity, and not put an end early on to the clearly insidious religion? The answer is Rome’s respect for the gods, and between 30 AD –33 AD Rome witnessed a Jewish god walk the earth in Judea/Galilee and environs. In order to placate Jesus, Rome had no choice but to put up with problematic Christians, where periodic prosecutions were policies meant to compel Christians to become more Roman. 

Rome allows Christians to exist because of Jesus. Rome makes a distinction between Christians and Jesus, as is illustrated by Emperor Galerius’ Edict of Toleration (311), which instructs an end to all prosecutions of Christians. The edict presents a bewildered Galerius who is aghast as to why Christians refuse to obey the “ancient laws” responsible for the "prosperity and welfare" of the empire. Galerius is aware that Jewish Roman subjects had long since made accommodations with Rome regarding the Roman Imperial Cult,3 so Galerius is confounded by Christians’ obstinate behaviors where, “Christians themselves, for some reason, had followed such a caprice and had fallen into such a folly that they would not obey the institutes of antiquity”. Christians behave badly not because they are followers of Jesus, Galerius understands, but despite their belief in Jesus, for Galerius ends the edict with the following sentiment that recognizes Jesus as a god, “Wherefore, for this our indulgence, they ought to pray to their God for our safety, for that of the republic, and for their own, that the republic may continue uninjured on every side, and that they may be able to live securely in their homes.” 

2. Ibid, p. 137. 

3. "The emperor Gaius Caligula (37-41CE), who thought he was a god, ordered the Jews to place a golden statue in the Temple. They refused, since it was a clear violation of the second commandment (Exodus 20:4-5). According to Josephus (Wars, II, 10, 4, ed. Simhoni, p. 146) Caligula sent Petronius to get the job done. The Jews engaged in civil disobedience and refused to let him proceed to Jerusalem.(6) They told him that they sacrifice twice a day sacrifices for the welfare of the Emperor and the Roman people.

Philo reports another aspect of the same story. He headed a delegation to Rome to meet with Caligula as a result of the tensions between the Jews and the Greeks in Alexandria. Isidorus, an enemy of the Jews at court, said that, unlike all other peoples who offer thanksgiving sacrifices to Caligula, the Jews do not.
Philo and his companions exclaimed that his was untrue. The Jews had even offered a hecatomb—a sacrifice of 100 animals—for the Emperor, and they had burnt the entire animals rather than eating them. And we did this not once but three times. First, when you became Emperor; second, when you were saved from the same dread disease which afflicted the entire world; and third, when we hoped for your victory over the Germans. “This is true,” said [Gaius Caligula] in reply, but in the name of another god!”

Without deciding which report is more accurate, we see here that the Jews offered sacrifices in the Temple for the Roman emperor in 39 CE just as they had for the Syrian and Persian kings before him."